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300 (R) Yes, 300 is great to look at (though its burnished golds and CGI'd settings begin to feel like watching a series of production sketches long before the movie ends). But there's not a hint of humanity in the evil Persians, as the demonized enemy. It's also alarmingly homophobic, which is a pretty strange approach for a movie that's non-stop beefcake. And, for that matter, it's neither terribly exciting, nor involving, since it never gives us a single character to care about, and as soon as it's set up the action, it's merely repetitive. It is loud, however. --Ken Hanke

Amazing Grace (PG) What looks like a must-avoid enterprise on the surface turns out to be one of the better films to hit screens this year thanks to the craftsmanship of director Michael Apted and a mind-blowing cast of Brit thespians. Amazing Grace may not be quite amazing, but it's one of the nobler "based on true events" efforts I've seen in some time. A necessarily simplified (and somewhat sanitized) biopic on William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud), who fought to abolish the slave trade in Britain in the 18th century, the film works on its own merits and a splendid -- and often quite witty -- script by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things). A very pleasant, if somewhat old-fashioned, surprise. --Ken Hanke

The Astronaut Farmer (PG) A former astronaut-in-training (Billy Bob Thornton), who had to give up his dreams of traveling into outer space after the death of his father, decides to build a rocket of his own in order to follow his vision. Old-fashioned to a fault, The Astronaut Farmer works more than it doesn't as a simple little film about following dreams, even if it is more than a little predictable (and unbelievable). It's a decent, though forgettable, diversion, that doesn't come off as preachy or as treacly as it might have. --Justin Souther

Black Snake Moan (R) In Black Snake Moan, Craig Brewer seems ready to dig deep into the lurid side of 1970s fringe indie cinema, with a concept so wildly inappropriate that you almost want to applaud him. Unfortunately, his fascination with the era doesn't end with its moviemaking. The 1970s were also the "Me Decade," and somewhere along the line Brewer came up with a singular notion: Wouldn't it be cool to mix the roots of "blaxploitation" with therapeutic navel-gazing? Not so much, as it turns out. The result proves to be a bait-and-switch that wants to wallow in the rough stuff, yet appear sensitive and socially responsible at the same time, recasting a decade's worth of cinematic anti-heroes as products of dysfunction. --Scott Renshaw

Breach (PG-13) This is one smart thriller: It lets you draw your own conclusions, actually requires that you're connected to current events in order to get the full brunt of the anxiety and dread bubbling under its surface. Screenwriters Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and director Billy Ray (who made the underrated Shattered Glass, also about lies and deception and self-delusion) refuse to speculate about the motives of the real-life Robert Hanssen, who, it is said, was the most damaging traitor in American history. No excuses are offered for Hanssen's extraordinarily destructive behavior, and Chris Cooper's hard performance brooks little sympathy. Rarely has the subtext of a film been so vital to appreciating its power. --MaryAnn Johanson

Bridge To Terabitha (PG) Based on the Katherine Paterson children's novel of the same name, Bridge to Terabithia follows two preteen outcasts (aren't they all?) as they attempt to escape the realities of growing up by creating their own imaginary fantasy world. More a human drama about loss and guilt than the fantasy epic it's being billed as, it's a rare family film that does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it fairly well. Terabithia manages to be pleasant and well-intentioned without being saccharine -- and also has enough sense to praise creativity and imagination above all else. -- Justin Souther

Ghost Rider (PG-13) Critics who attack this silly comic book movie for being unbelievable and lacking truly human characters should consider for a moment that it's about a guy who's become Satan's bounty hunter, who turns into a burning skeleton and rides around on a flaming motorcycle. This is just a nonsensical fun ride with Nicolas Cage in a truly weird performance (there are times when he moves and reacts so slowly that he seems to halt time itself) as the world's most unlikely superhero. It's not good, but it's not good in an often hugely entertaining way -- assuming, of course, that you're ready to accept the idea of the main character and the business of Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) squaring off against Mephistopheles Jr. (Wes Bentley). Realism it ain't. --Ken Hanke

The Last King of Scotland (R) Everyone's talking about Forest Whitaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland as the African dictator Idi Amin, and that's all right and good: Whitaker is a marvel. If you're the kind of moviegoer who cares about things like craft, and if you revel at seeing an actor at the top of his game, you won't want to miss this film. Based on a novel by Giles Foden, it's the story of a young Scottish doctor, Nick Garrigan (a brilliant James McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in the 1970s, looking for adventure and an opportunity to do some real good, and finds himself swept up in the reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin. Writer Peter Morgan and director Kevin Macdonald have made one of the don't-you-dare-miss-it films of the year. --MaryAnn Johanson

Letters from Iwo Jima (R) Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is considerably better than its counterpart, but that's not saying much by itself. Telling part of the same story (minus the aftermath deconstruction) from the Japanese point of view is a fascinating idea --- and one that enhances the earlier film in many ways. It's also a daunting undertaking and Eastwood only partially brings it off. The idea of putting faces on the men who, in Hollywood's hands, have rarely been more than faceless fanatics is certainly sound. And the revelation that the Japanese were ill-prepared, often disorganized, and cognizant of their own impending doom is strikingly developed. The actors here, especially Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara, are remarkable. But once the film states its case, it tends to be repetitive. A worthwhile, possibly even noble, film, but not a truly great one. --Ken Hanke

Music and Lyrics (PG-13) The best Hugh Grant straightforward romantic comedy he's made in some time is witty, playful, charming, and satisfying, an unpretentious confection that's just right and a little bit more. From the moment the movie begins -- with an ersatz music video from the 1980s of Alex Fletcher (Grant) and his old pop group Pop performing their hit "Pop Goes My Heart" -- it's on the right track, and it only gets better. The songs are good enough to believe as hit-making material, and Grant is perfect as a has-been who's comfortable with that status but ready to make a comeback. Gently satirical material blends with a pleasantly quirky romance -- thanks to the chemistry of Grant and Drew Barrymore -- to produce truly enjoyable light entertainment. --Ken Hanke

Norbit (R) Norbit isn't your ordinary shitty movie. This is a shitty movie for the ages -- the sort of crap that makes the legendary Pootie Tang look like the work of a genius auteur. In terms of production values, Norbit actually resembles Pootie Tang, which is to say that it looks like it cost a good $1.95 to make. Everything about the film is cheap beyond words -- including the whole concept. In fact, there's nothing to the film but concept: the concept that Eddie Murphy as a Jerry Lewis-like nerd is funny, that Murphy made up as a racist Chinese man is a laff riot, that Murphy in fat suit drag as his own monstrous wife is the pinnacle of comedy. Sadly, none of it is funny, while all of it is mean-spirited and offensive. --Ken Hanke

Notes on a Scandal (R) Notes on a Scandal is a huge lark of a movie, an enormous pleasure of smart, intricate performances, twisty plotting, and sinful sensationalism. Imagine Single White Female as mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. To see Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the finest actresses working today, wrestle to the metaphoric ground roaringly stereotyped characters plucked straight from real-life supermarket tabloids or golden-age Hollywood melodrama is a hoot. The clever script is by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller; the excellent direction is by Richard Eyre, who made the little-seen but similarly compelling Stage Beauty. The result is an incisive exploration of what happens when two women who have different ways of coping with life's little prices collide. --MaryAnn Johanson

The Number 23 (R) As a crazy on the loose in a thriller, Jim Carrey here is more Looney Tunes than lunatic. Director Joel Schumacher's tale of obsession follows Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), who finds increasingly eerie similarities to his own life in a book called The Number 23. Soon he starts seeing the numeral everywhere. Interesting premise, but thrillers aren't the right tune for Carrey to dance to, and he spends most of the movie mugging and overacting. The film's saving grace is in the numbers. Schumacher goes out of his way to work various permutations of the titular numeral into the film everywhere, whether his characters notice them or not. Half (maybe more) of the fun of The Number 23 (and there is fun to be had in spite of its problems) is in watching for the number to pop up. --Joshua Tyler

The Painted Veil (PG-13) Is marriage a plague? That's probably not what W. Somerset Maugham was trying to say with his novel The Painted Veil, part battle with infidelity and part battle with an epidemic in the Chinese back country. But it's a relief to sit through this new adaptation and still be able to think of it that way. One of the movie's strengths is that it doesn't seem concerned with what you think. If the story lacks weight, if it's a bit predictable, a bit melodramatic, one can take comfort that this is the third time Maugham's book has been made into a movie, and this time was ripe for an over-making, turning a simple story of infidelity and betrayal into a grand treatise on life: In other words, it could have been turned into something that would have died right in our arms. --Wayne Melton

Pan's Labyrinth (R) I'm not convinced Guillermo del Toro really has anything compelling to say about a juxtaposition between fascist Spain and his intricate fantasy landscape, and that fans aren't simply hunting for an excuse to claim it's more than just a style piece. But so what? You've still gotta groove to the universe he creates for his pre-teen protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who moves with her widowed, pregnant mother in 1944 to live with her new stepfather, an army captain (Sergi López), while also discovering a strange underworld of which she may be the long-lost princess. Someone else can tie himself in knots finding political subtext or coming-of-age rebellion metaphors. The wicked cool creatures -- nasty little insectoid fairies; a beastly fellow with eyes in his palms -- and the squirming-est self-suturing scene since First Blood provide plenty of purely superficial reasons to have a blast. --Scott Renshaw

Reno 911! Miami (R) Little more than a collection of half-baked sketches improvised by a bunch of comedians you've never heard of, lacking the slightest modicum of wit, focus, or aptitude. Based on the popular Comedy Central series, the misfit members of the Reno Sheriff's Department travel to Miami for a police convention but end up having to take over the city's law enforcement responsibilities after a bio-terror attack. Strictly for fans of the show, though it may be unlikely that even they will get more than a few chuckles out of this lame, drawn-out, tiresome excuse for a film. --Justin Souther

The Ultimate Gift (PG) Saying that Michael O. Sajbel's The Ultimate Gift is the best thing to come from FoxFaith Films does it a disservice -- it's far classier and better made than the drek that's emerged from that studio to date. The better than usual cast -- especially Bill Cobbs, Lee Meriweather and Abigail Breslin -- help. That's not to say that it's a great movie. It's old-fashioned, driven by clichés, has an annoying TV movie-like score, and owes much to the Lloyd C. Douglas religious novels of an earlier era. It's not deep by any stretch of the imagination. Still, its largely innocuous story of a young man (Drew Fuller), who learns the meaning of life by having to fulfill the requirements of his grandfather's (James Garner) will isn't entirely disagreeable, in a Hallmark card sort of way, if that's your thing. --Ken Hanke

Wild Hogs (PG-13) Four middle-class, middle-aged family men decide to take a cross country road trip aboard their motorcycles, until trouble arises when they run into a gang of real bikers. The whole concept is supposed to be rife with nonstop hilarity, until the requisite feel-good ending where the guys learn the true meaning of love, family, and friendship. (Think City Slickers with motorcycles.) The hilarity, unfortunately, is nonexistent, consisting more or less of gay jokes, feeble attempts at irreverence, William H. Macy running his bike into things, Tim Allen doing his normal Home Improvement everyman shtick, and Martin Lawrence being his standard annoying self. And what is John Travolta doing in this steaming pile of manure? --Justin Souther

Venus (R) Venus is absolutely nothing new. And yet it's fresh and warm and human and angry and bitter and vulgar and earthy and funny and frank. Peter O'Toole so completely throws himself into the role of Maurice, formerly a famous actor and now just treading water 'til life runs out, that the only response is to suspect that he is letting us see the real man behind the actorly mask. This is no sparkly caricature about a dapper gent with a spring in his creaky step -- this is a portrait of regrets and survival and the betrayal of our bodies as we age. There are moments when you want to look away and leave the man his dignity. And it's that daring, that unexpectedness, that novel take on an old, old tale that makes it worth seeing again, and makes it feel like you're seeing it for the first time. --MaryAnn Johanson

Zodiac (R) Maybe if you've never seen any recent (by that I mean in the past 30 years) horror films, you'll be shocked and horrified by the very limited carnage presented in the early scenes of David Fincher's preposterously overlong (154 minutes) Zodiac. And maybe if you go in realizing that this isn't so much a movie about the infamous Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the late '60s and early '70s, and it isn't so much about trying to catch the killer as it is about the obsession of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmark (Jake Gyllenhaal) with the Zodiac, you'll find the film more pleasing than I did. It's well made and certainly well acted (especially by Robert Downey, Jr., whose absence from the final 30 minutes of the proceedings is keenly felt). It's occasionally creepy, for that matter, but it doesn't make for very compelling drama. --Ken Hanke

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